PARADISE, Calif. (AP) — A wildfire that moved so fast firefighters didn’t even try to stop it killed five people, authorities said Friday as the blaze quadrupled in size after leveling much of a Northern California town of nearly 30,000 people.
Only a day after it began, the fire near the town of Paradise had grown to nearly 110 square miles (285 square kilometers), and investigators found five people dead in vehicles that were torched by the flames.
“There was really no firefight involved,” said Capt. Scott McLean of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, explaining that crews gave up attacking the flames and instead helped people evacuate. “These firefighters were in the rescue mode all day yesterday.”
The entire town was ordered evacuated, setting off a desperate exodus in which many motorists got struck in gridlocked traffic and abandoned their vehicles to flee foot. People reported seeing much of the community go up in flames, including homes, supermarkets, businesses, restaurants, schools and a retirement center.
The dead were found in the same part of Paradise, the Butte County Sheriff’s Office said.
Rural areas fared little better. Many homes have propane tanks that were exploding amid the flames. “They were going off like bombs,” said Karen Auday, who escaped to a nearby town.
McLean estimated that the lost buildings numbered in the thousands in Paradise, about 180 miles (290 kilometers) northeast of San Francisco.
“Pretty much the community of Paradise is destroyed. It’s that kind of devastation,” he said.
With fires burning in both Northern and Southern California, the director of the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services put the number of people forced from their homes at 157,000.
The massive blaze that hit Paradise spread north Friday, prompting officials to order the evacuation of Stirling City and Inskip, two communities north of Paradise along the Sierra Nevada foothills.
The wind-driven flames also spread to the west and reached the edge of Chico, a city of 90,000 people. Firefighters were able to stop the fire at the edge of the city, where evacuation orders remained in place Friday, Cal Fire Cpt. Bill Murphy said.
The winds calmed down in the valley, but they were still shifting and erratic, with speeds of up to 45 mph (72 kph) along ridge tops, he said.
With ash falling and the sky darkening to a menacing shade of black, evacuees from Paradise sat in stunned silence Friday outside a Chico church where they took refuge the night before. They all had harrowing tales of a slow-motion escape from a fire so close they could feel the heat inside their vehicles as they sat stuck in a terrifying traffic jam.
When the order came to evacuate, it was like the entire town of 27,000 residents decided to leave at once, they said. Fire surrounded the evacuation route, and drivers panicked. Some crashed and others left their vehicles by the roadside.
“It was just a wall of fire on each side of us, and we could hardly see the road in front of us,” police officer Mark Bass said.
A nurse called Rita Miller at about 7 a.m. Thursday, telling her she had to get her disabled mother, who lives a few blocks away, and flee Paradise immediately. Miller jumped in her boyfriend’s rickety pickup truck, which was low on gas and equipped with a bad transmission. She instantly found herself stuck in gridlock.
“I was frantic,” she said. After an hour of no movement, she abandoned the truck and decided to try her luck on foot. While walking, a stranger in the traffic jam rolled down her window asked Miller if she needed help. Miller at first she scoffed at the notion of getting back in a stopped car. The she reconsidered, thinking: “I’m really scared, this is terrifying, I can’t breathe, I can’t see and maybe I should humble myself and get in this woman’s car.”
The stranger ended up helping Miller pack up her mother and taking them to safety in Chico, which took three hours to travel the 14 miles from Paradise to Chico.
Concerned friends and family posted frantic messages on Twitter and other sites saying they were looking for loved ones, particularly seniors who lived at retirement homes or alone.
Bass evacuated his family from Paradise and returned to the fire to help rescue several disabled residents, including a man trying to carry his bedridden wife to safety.
Chico police officer John Barker and his partner evacuated several elderly people from an apartment complex.
“Most of them were immobile, with walkers or spouses that were bedridden, so we were trying to get additional units to come and try and help us, just taking as many as we could,” he said.
Kelly Lee called shelters looking for her husband’s 93-year-old grandmother, Dorothy Herrera, who was last heard from Thursday morning. Herrera, who lives in Paradise with her 88-year-old husband, Lou, left a frantic voicemail around 9:30 a.m. saying they needed to get out.
“We never heard from them again,” Lee said. “We’re worried sick. … They do have a car, but they both are older and can be confused at times.”
In Southern California, about two-thirds of the city of Malibu was ordered evacuated early Friday as a ferocious wildfire roared toward the beachside community that is home to about 13,000 residents, some of them Hollywood celebrities.
The Los Angeles County Fire Department tweeted that the fire raging through the Santa Monica Mountains was headed to the ocean. Another fire was burning farther west in Ventura County, also moving toward the ocean.
The National Weather Service issued extreme fire danger warnings in many areas of the state, saying low humidity and strong winds were expected to continue through the evening.